Words are biotic

Is it a coincidence that areas of linguistic and ethnic plurality are also areas of biodiversity? nitin sethi tries to answer a biocultural question

Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

Words are biotic

“When metaphors die, ideas pass away and a way of thinking is buried,” says Sakar Khan. He is not a linguist. He is a musician. He plays the Khamaicha — a four-string instrument. Somewhere in his eighties, he is arguably the most revered of the musicians in his tribe — the langas of Rajasthan. Reticently he shares his feelings, “I see today’s generation ignore the khamaicha. I can’t help it. Music, like language, can provide only a metaphor for a way of life. When people lose a way of life, their language struggles to survive.” In a similar vein, linguists remember Tefvik Esenc, the last speaker of Ubykh, a language once spoken in northwestern Caucasus. Some years ago they scampered to his village of Haci Osman in Turkey to meet him. He had three sons, all of them unable to understand his tongue, preferring Turkish instead. He had already decided upon his epitaph. “This is the grave of Tefvik Esenc. He was the last person able to speak the language they called Ubykh. ” He died in 1992. The language passed away with him.

Then there is what linguist Bruce Connel recorded in a newsletter of the UK Foundation for Endangered Languages, under the heading “obituaries”. “During fieldwork in the Mambila region of Cameroon’s Adawawa region in 1994-95, I came across a number of moribund languages…one of these, Kasabe…had only one remaining speaker, Bogon. In November 1996 I returned to the Mambila region. Bogon had died on November 5, 1995 taking Kasabe with him. He is survived by a sister, who reportedly could understand Kasabe, but not speak it, and several children and grandchildren, none of whom know the language.”

Exactly what is lost when a language dies? Do we also lose what can be called a biotic world-view, the local knowledge and wisdom of which a language is a repository?

The Tower of Babel lies in the tropics

Most linguists agree that about 6,000 languages are spoken today. Not all languages spoken in the world have been ‘discovered’. Reports occasionally come in of new languages and communities being found in the islands of Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the South American or Central African rainforests. In 1998 two such nomadic communities (the Vahudate and the Aukedate, comprising 20 and 33 families respectively) were found living near the Mamberamo river, 2,400 miles east of Jakarta. Author of the book Language Death and linguist, David Crystal, says it is quite likely their speech is sufficiently different to count as a new language. Even in parts of the world where linguistic surveys have been carried out, the data remains incomplete and provides partial information. Perhaps this why, of the 6,703 languages it lists, the Ethnologue marks 3,074 as those that require surveys.

The world’s languages are highly unevenly distributed. Four per cent of the 6,000 odd languages are spoken in Europe; about 15 per cent in the Americas, 31 per cent in Africa and 50 per cent in the Pacific and Asia. Just two countries put together, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, account for 25 per cent of all Southeast Asian languages (about 1,500). India is home to about 380 languages.

It’s clear that the current geographical spread of languages surviving today is skewed. But so is the number of people that speak each respective language. Out of the full bouquet of 6,700 surviving languages, most are spoken by very small groups of communities and people. The world’s top 10 languages, in terms of the number of speakers, are spoken by approximately half the world’s population.

As Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, a Sweden-based linguist and professor at Roskilde University, points out, “When we are talking about the world’s languages, even the biggest ones, we do not really know what we are talking about. Some of the variations are due to changes in classification systems. Of the others, some are results of real changes, but many are results of guesswork. The problem is that we don’t know which is which. We do not have even the basic information needed for efficient language planning and language policies. Even when speaking about millions of people, our figures are all but reliable. We know more about pigs than people.”

In fact relatively few people speak most of the world’s languages. The average number of speakers of one language is probably around 5,000 to 6,000. Communities of one million speakers and above speak fewer than 300 languages, meaning that over 95 per cent of the world’s spoken languages have fewer than one million native users. The point is that some 83-84 per cent of languages spoken are endemic (local to the space in which they are prevalent). They are spoken only in a particular country and not shared between boundaries. In fact about 4,000-5,000 out of the 6,000 odd languages are spoken by indigenous tribes of the world.

These can be as disparate as the 10 million strong Quechua descendents of the Inca civilisation, or fewer than 10 people in the Gurumulum band of Papua New Guinea.


Is there, therefore, a pattern to the geographical spread of languages? Where should we look to find that pattern, if any?

Most of the World’s languages are spoken in the tropical countries. There are two great belts of high density of languages (see map: Worlds of words). One belt runs from the West African coast through the Congo basin to East Africa, and the other runs from India and peninsular Southeast Asia into the islands of Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and the Pacific. The seventeen major countries of these two belts (including India) contain about 60 per cent of the world’s languages and only nine per cent of the geographical land area.

Noticeably, quite a few of these countries are some of the poorest in the world. They also harbour a great many of the world’s species. Just a casual glance at the biodiversity hotspots of the world and the geographical spread of languages shows a remarkable similarity.

Terralingua (a Washington-based non governmental organisation that campaigns for linguistic rights) along with wwf carried out a cross mapping of indigenous peoples’ locations onto a map of the globally two hundred most fragile and important biological regions. wwf mapped out nearly 900 ecoregions of the world and found 238 of them to be of the utmost importance for biological diversity. These were termed the ‘global 200 ecoregions’. (An ecoregion was defined as a relatively large unit land or water containing a geographically distinct assemblage of species, natural communities, and environmental conditions.)

They then used the concept of ‘ethnolinguistic groups’, used to define a social unit that shares the same language and culture and uses the same criteria to differentiate itself from other social groups. In the mapping 4,635 distinct ethnolinguistic groups were found to inhabit 225 ecoregions, representing 67 per cent of an approximate world total of 6,867 ethnolinguistic groups.

Tropical rainforests, the world’s most biodiversity-rich areas, covering just seven per cent of the planet’s land surface, are home to at least 50 per cent, and perhaps as many as 90 per cent, of the world’s species. These ecosystems were also found to be the most culturally diverse regions, harbouring at least 1,400 distinct indigenous and traditional peoples. The total figure for all tropical forest ecoregions, including mangroves, amounts to 2,880 communities, which represents 62 per cent of all ecoregions in the Global 200, and 42 per cent of all ecoregions in the world.

In sum, the correlation between the Global 200 ecoregions as reservoirs of high biodiversity and also as areas of concentration of human diversity is clearly very significant.

Mere coincidence?

Is there more to this overlap Eric a Smith, professor at the Department of Anthropology, University of Washington, USA, studied the relationship between linguistic and cultural diversity in native North America and the biodiversity of the region. He recorded more than 275 languages spread in the domains of the native North American spoken at the time of contact with the Europeans. For measuring cultural diversity, Smith used the standard measure — ethnolinguistic groups — among other parameters. He measured biodiversity using a rather primary parameter, that of species richness in an area. He used maps to superimpose diversity of one kind over linguistic and cultural diversity maps of the same area.

The results were quite revealing. Says Smith, “Four of the regions with the lowest tree-species diversity overlapped with the four of the least linguistically diverse areas.” Two of the three regions with the highest tree species also had the highest linguistic diversity. Analysis of the non-linguistic measures of cultural diversity also showed similar results when correlated with biodiverse regions. Smith concluded that liguistic diversity seems to be driven by environmental reasons as well as socio-political ones. Tove agrees: “There is definitely a casual relationship between the two types of diversity.” While the same forces may be at work to influence diversity of languages and biological wealth, the way they work and influence are definitely regarded by experts to vary.

The foundation of such studies has been laid down very recently. Yet many anthropologists and experts have some ideas that are generally agreed upon today. David Harmon, co-founder of Terralingua, and author of In Light of Our Differences: How Diversity in Nature and Culture Makes Us Human , points out that several large-scale biogeographical factors that affect both biological and linguistic diversity. These factors include the existence of large landmasses with varying terrains and ecosystems; island territories, especially with internal geophysical barriers; tropical climates, fostering higher numbers and densities. All these factors may increase linguistic diversity by increasing mutual isolation among human populations.

He also suggests a simple phenomenon. When people begin to live close to nature and modify it as they adapt to it, they develop a specialised knowledge about their environment. In order to convey this vital knowledge they develop lingual tools specific to their ecological regions and contexts. Over time these tools would have distilled into their lingual and cultural maps.

Says Tove, “Recent research shows mounting evidence for the hypothesis that the relationship may also be causal. Linguistic and cultural diversity may be decisive mediating variables in sustaining biodiversity itself, and vice versa, as long as humans are on the earth.” All landscapes are cultural landscapes. Likewise, local nature its use have influenced the languages and visions of the people dependent on it for their sustenance. This relationship between all kinds of diversities is what most indigenous peoples have always known.

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